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How Sexism Affects Women’s Football in the UK

Many people may have been under the illusion that sexism was no longer present in football until Richard Keys and Andy Gray faced disciplinary action over their comments about female referee’s assistant Sian Massey. The fact that influential figures still harbour sexist views sends a clear message that sexism still exists in British football.

It is perfectly reasonable to argue that the existence of sexism affects the quality and success of the female game. The United States women’s national soccer team won the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1991 and has dominated in women’s international soccer ever since. The team is currently number one in the world according to the FIFA Women’s World Rankings and has won three Olympic Women’s Gold Medals. There is an enthusiasm amongst girls in the U.S for soccer along with a level of support that facilitates progress and promotes the emergence of talent. No doubt the success of the national team has a lot to do with this. The team is an inspiration to many girls across the country and positive attitudes abound in education and amongst parents. The view that it is important to promote the equal rights of girls to participate in a range of sports allows them to succeed in football and other sports. In addition to this, a combination of support and financial investment enables American girls to see soccer as a sport that is equally as open to them to pursue as a hobby and as a career as it is to boys. In contrast, in the U.K. there is a lack of interest in football amongst girls, sexist attitudes and unsurprisingly, as a result, limited talent being produced.

Despite the increased interest in female football internationally, there are sexist attitudes in the U.K. that contribute to a limited number of girls playing football and taking it seriously. It stands to reason that the fewer girls there are playing the game the less talent there will be developing in the women’s game. Whilst this situation continues in the U.K., finding the type of talent required to compete with the likes of the U.S is going to be a challenge to say the least.

Women’s football had a blaze of glory in the U.K. in the early 1920’s when some matches achieved over 50,000 spectators. However, this was soon stopped when England’s Football Association voted to ban the game from grounds used by its member clubs in December 1921. The ban was canceled in July 1971 but not before enough time had passed to send home the message that girls playing football would not to be taken seriously by the British. Certainly the children growing up during this period would have been given a loud and clear message about football. Many of the boys will have gone on to have an influence in the game later in life as officials, coaches and players. People growing up in that era have become parents and spread narrow minded ideas about football to subsequent generations.

In contrast,  in the USA, women’s soccer is taken seriously. It has a significant following and is growing with money consistently being invested at collegiate and pro levels. This has surely led to the development and progression needed to produce a quality team. Whilst having some talented players and qualifying for three World Cups, so far the England women’s side’s most impressive achievement to date was reaching the European Championships final and losing 6–2 to Germany. Whilst not down playing the achievements of the women who play football in the U.K., it has to be said that they pale into insignificance in comparison to the U.S. ladies.

This is certainly connected to the sexist attitudes that permeate the culture where women’s football in concerned. As we know in order to nurture any kind of talent support, belief and investment are needed. The existence of sexist attitudes in football in the U.K. demonstrate a lack of belief and affect the support and the money invested in women’s football at all levels. This is having an impact on the success of women’s football and the ability of the country to produce considerable amounts of talent on a consistent enough basis to compete on the international field.

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  1. Pete

    November 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Tradition is a big factor, you said it yourself, ‘soccer is seen as a sport for girls in the US’. This is despite the fact that in the rest of the world it is played mostly by men. Tradition in the US has led people to believe that this is the way it is and soccer is a girls game.
    If you have a hard job convincing people in the US that it isn’t a girls game despite the fact that it is mainly played by men in the rest of the world, how would I convince people in the UK that football is not a man’s sport when it is played mostly by men in the rest of the world?
    The thought process is placed in people’s minds from the moment they are born, when a father kicks a ball with his son, when the school take you for your physical education class and girls go off to play netball and boys go off to play Rugby or Football
    This is the way it is so what you think doesn’t really matter because over a hundred years of tradition is not going to change overnight.

    • Rebxrn

      November 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm

      Agree, to be honest you would have to be British to understand.

      We live in a hyper sensitive world in which the outspoken minority want to force a certain correctness.
      If you want to play a sport, play it no matter what your sex is.

      More Pew Pew Less QQ

  2. Pete

    November 9, 2011 at 10:09 am


    I’m not going to argue that young boys should be allowed to wear a skirt and heels to school and I’m not going to argue that young women should be sent to the front line so they can be shot next to the men. Are these things not just a sexist tradition? It could be argued they are but maybe that’s just the way it should be.

    Like I have already said as far as sports go, the option is there for women to play all of the traditional male sports in the UK. Whether they want to is a different matter.

    • jm

      November 9, 2011 at 11:12 am

      I’m not sure I see the connection between the points. While I disagree with your conclusions about the examples (I don’t have any problem with boys taking on behaviors traditionally associated with femininity, nor do I think that sex should be a deciding factor in combat deployment decisions), are you suggesting that the traditions with regards to sports are also gendered differences that we ought to keep?

      I also think it is a mistake to look at it simply in terms of interest. Interest itself is subject to sexist tropes – e.g., the notion that football is a male sport and hockey is a female sport. Young girls and young women growing up into that sort of culture are more likely to prefer the sports they have traditionally been told to like. In the US, you see this with competitive softball (traditionally female) and baseball (traditionally male). Carla is making a deeper and more serious point – that setting up our sports in this way is itself sexist, because there is no good reason for saying that some of these sports are “women’s sports” and some are not. The evidence for this is that soccer is seen as a sport for girls in the US, which suggest that there is nothing but tradition standing in its way in other countries.

  3. Pete

    November 9, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Sexist isn’t what I would call it, more like tradition.

    Girls games in the UK – Netball, Hockey, Rounders
    Boys games in the UK – Football, Rugby, Cricket

    Does it mean that one sex can’t play the other? No, they are just more unlikely to.

    There are women’s teams in all 3 of the traditional men’s sports and men do play hockey in the UK.

    Women may play Ice Hockey and American Football in the US but I have never seen it. Would that not be the same thing?

    • jm

      November 9, 2011 at 8:57 am

      Why can’t traditions be sexist? Sexism is not limited to overt and conscious sexist attitudes. It can also be structural and traditional barriers (what tonyspeed called the traditionally male activities) that privilege one sex or gender.

      The US Women’s Ice Hockey team is actually quite good, among the best in the world. American football in the US is permeated with sexism (it is a hotbed of “macho” attitudes) – you most often see women playing it in “powderpuff” matches, which treat it as a novelty rather than something that women could seriously pursue.

  4. tonyspeed

    November 9, 2011 at 7:56 am

    In the context of history, one cannot say such attitudes are sexist per-say. We refuse to remember that football derives from a roman army game that was very rough. At one point in history women did not join the army nor partake in rough-housing, slide -tackling etc. The idea that a women not playing in activities that were traditionally male activities is a recent phenomenon. One can see it from both sides of the fence. How many girls in America are encouraged to play american football? When looked at from that light, and understanding that football is perceived to be a rough game in other parts of the world, you can see there is not much difference between USA and UK. It’s easy to call UK sexist since Americans view euro football as a girls game, and unless you were born and raised playing euro football and come from a family that was fond of it, you will always to some extent tie euro football to women if you are American.

    • tonyspeed

      November 9, 2011 at 8:01 am

      “The idea that a women not playing in activities that were traditionally male activities is a recent phenomenon.” should be

      The idea that a women not being allowed to play in activities that were traditionally male activities is sexist is a recent phenomenon.

      Anyone in America raised in the generations since the 60s cannot possibly understand that such percieved limitations were about preserving the honour of woman-kind. How would everyone look at your daughter if she were running around in the dirt? Now any limitation is perceived as unfair, and especially anyone growing up in the Mia Hamm generation cannot understand it.

  5. trickybrkn

    November 9, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Well its hard to deny that sexism exists in the larger culture of football when Sepp Blatter says things like (and I’ll paraphrase), ‘women should wear tighter clothing to be taken more seriously’. In the United States WPS has struggled to fill seats. The MajicJack, even with US Internationals Hope Solo and Abby Wambach, went under. So on a professional level, even in the US the woman’s side of the sport struggles.
    In England the ‘Ladies’ division is normally linked with the larger men’s clubs and can share many of the bigger clubs resources. In other words there is a built in infrastructure to work with… That said I don’t know why the game isn’t as popular in the UK. My wife played field hockey, or rounders or netball. They where the sports offered in school. Football unlike in the states was seen as a boys sport. Just to state the obvious… England needs a Mia Hamm.

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